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Alaska's 2014 mushing race season revs up this weekend in Knik

Suzanna Caldwell
Musher Jake Berkowitz will bring his sled-dog team to the Knik 200 early-season race. Loren Holmes photo

It may be a new year, but with that, comes the heart of winter and one thing a lot of Alaskans can get excited about: sled dog racing.

January is when the real races start in Alaska, with a major mid-distance race falling every single weekend that month and into February. Two major races -- the newly formed Top of the World 350 and the traditional season-opener Sheep Mountain 150 -- both were canceled early in the season. Only one race, the Two Rivers Solstice 50/100 managed to go in 2013, with Aliy Zirkle coming out on top with a win in the 100-mile race over experienced veterans like kennel partner Allen Moore and four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King.

While the races serve as important qualifiers for rookie mushers hoping to enter the 1,000-mile Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races, they also can serve as a gauge for fans about potential front-runners in the weeks leading up to the longer races.

Here's a rundown of some of some of the larger races set to go over the next month. It's important to note that all races are subject to inclement weather and usually make determinations in the days before on whether they will actually happen or not.

Jan. 4 -- Knik 200

With the Sheep Mountain canceled, the Knik 200 becomes the de facto season opener, making a return after its own cancelation in 2012 due to poor trail conditions. The race, held every year in honor of the “father of the Iditarod” Joe Redington Sr., is looking to take more advantage of social media this year according to race manager Robert Sexton. The race will also deploy two “parrot” drones to shoot aerial footage of the mushers and hopefully live-stream the start.

That heightened Internet presence will give fans a good chance to follow the race, which is expected to be competitive. Annual top contenders Ray Redington Jr., Jake Berkowitz, Hugh Neff and 2013 Iditarod Rookie of the Year Joar Leifseth Ulsom are included on the 40-team roster.

It's unclear what the purse will be this year, though Sexton said it generally averages around $8,000. The race starts at Knik Lake, 12 miles outside of Wasilla on Jan. 4.

Jan. 11 -- Copper Basin 300

After a tumultuous year of “will they race or won't they?” in 2013, the Copper Basin 300 is up to full strength. A complete field of 45 mushers has signed up for this year's running, which starts in the Interior Alaska community of Glennallen.

With the race filled, there's also a desire to return to the full 300 miles. When the Summit Lake Lodge burned down a number of years ago, the trail changed, chopping roughly 30 miles off the course. This year an extra loop of trail has been added to push the mileage to about 305, according to Race spokesperson Meg Jensen.

Jensen also said this year's race features an eclectic mix of racers. Returning is defending champ Allen Moore and slew of serious contenders, though roughly half the field is made up of rookies, an oddity for the race. She said there's also a mix of racers from all over the world -- including Russia, Sweden and even Australia.

Jan. 17 -- Kuskokwim 300

It's already host of the biggest prize in all of mid-distance sled dog racing, with a $110,000 purse, but this year, Bethel's Kuskokwim 300 is expected to get a little more exciting.

For the first year, mushers will be able to take their mandatory six-hour layover in one-hour increments instead of in one full stop. The hope is to change up the strategy of mushers, according to race manager Zach Fansler.

In the past, mushers would take their 6-hour breaks in the village of Kalskag before trekking off to the halfway point of Aniak 30 miles away. That meant villagers would only get a quick glimpse of most mushers, who would head back out on the trail.

“Our hope is it does introduce some new strategies and hopefully it will make for a more exciting race,” Fansler said.

For the 34th running of the K300, defending champ Jeff King is back, as well as a number of past winners, including father and son individual champs Martin and Rohn Buser, Paul Gebhardt and John Baker.

Jan. 24 -- Northern Lights 300

While a few familiar, competitive names have signed up for the Northern Lights 300 -- in particular four-time Yukon Quest champ Hans Gatt and 2012 Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey -- at the end of the day, the race is less about racing and more about giving experience to mushers looking to qualify for the longer races.

“(The race) should be a quality adventure, a lot of fun, it should be a challenge, with a lot of camaraderie and help from other mushers,” said race manager Sue Allen.

While there is a purse, it gets distributed evenly for finishing mushers. To add to the experience, the course follows the first three checkpoints of the Iditarod -- Yentna Station, Skwentna and Finger Lake. It even starts at Happy Trails Kennel, home to Martin Buser's team. Buser -- a four-time Iditarod champion -- serves as host and a de facto mentor on the trail.

Feb. 1 -- Tustumena 200

Want an idea of how popular the Tustumena 200 is? Consider that it only took one hour for all 40 spots to be filled up for the 30th running of the race, according to race director Tami Murray.

“It just gotten bigger and better,” she said.

One thing that's notably gotten bigger? The purse, which has doubled this year from $25,000 to $50,000. That means the winner will take home a whopping $10,000 for the 200-mile race that starts in Kasilof and follows trails on the Kenai Peninsula to Homer and back.

Locals Paul Gebhardt and 2013 defending Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey have signed up, as has Seavey's youngest son, Conway. If he finishes, Conway Seavey will be the youngest musher to complete the race at 17, according to Murray. And if he wins -- which with the ultra-competitive Seavey family is always a possibility -- he could also be the first musher to win the junior race, the 100-mile race and the 200.